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Wednesday, July 25, 2001

Below, not beneath

Posted By on Wed, Jul 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM

In a world after Juan Atkins does a Ford commercial, the search for imaginative, experimental electronic music can become so much fodder for cynics. Luckily, for the practical dreamers, there is BelowTheSurface, an album of underground producers who, as the liner notes succinctly state, are “dedicated to unity and collaboration … with the intent of keeping the collective form in a continual state of growth.” Lofty ideal. But after listening to the record, compiled by Lifesoundtrax label head, record-store owner, and electronic producer Alvin Hill (DJ Munk), the ideal seems to have found some reality.

Examples of “growth” — change, increase, tumors — show up early. With the first track, “Invisible” by Kelsey Vaughn Thomas, BTS establishes its genre-smearing resolve by cutting across the subgenres of submarine-electro and dubbed-out techno. Later, detronik’s “Do you Wanna,” ups the ante while dead-panning Detroit’s biggest export — booty — by teasing out the frank sexuality of electro with the speak-and-spell vocal come-on, “Tell you what, let’s go out and fuck tonight.” Other tracks move forward by alluding to Detroit sounds that might have been but never were — like the robot-vocal-diva-house tinge of “We Can Make It” by Colton Weatherston and the Detroit-meets-Nintendo synth resolve of Year of the Robot’s “Anti-Auto.”

But the killer moments on BTS don’t just mess with the standards of techno; instead they enlarge them by messing with funk, jazz, ambient and even classical themes. Here, tracks like John Briggs’ “Simple Text,” with its aquatic space-invader funk and belching electro fervor, move into sounds and ideas only hinted at in the current canon. Near the end, ThreeForNow’s “Kwaze” and antiLogic’s “Obh” also break down techno walls, from mixing piano, sax, electronic strings and keyboards into a late-night brood (“Kwaze”), to taking Blade Runner out back for a good old fashioned Detroit beat-down with an unruly drum machine (“Obh”). After listening, the message is clear: Detroit’s innovators are still there — if you dig deep enough.

E-mail Carleton S. Gholz at


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